In which I celebrate my favourite Vidhu Vinod Chopra film.
Vidhu Vinod Chopra was 29 years old when he made Khamosh, and to me, coming from a bright young filmmaker flying the independent flag high, the cunning murder mystery always contained elements of wish-fulfilment. Set on a fictional movie set with Sadashiv Amrapurkar as a servile director eager to please everyone (except naturally the writer), the film casts actors as fictional versions of themselves, under their own names: Soni Razdan plays an actress likely to speak in English even if her character won’t; Shabana Azmi plays the kind of heroine who wins successive National Awards and yet acts in a highly commercial melodrama; and Amol Palekar stars as a matinee idol so popular all are bullish about his election prospects. (“MGR, NTR, Palekar!” is the cry, with the leading man heralded as the country’s biggest star.)
With selected theatres currently celebrating 30 years of Vinod Chopra Productions, it is a fine time to revisit Chopra’s gangland masterpiece, Parinda, with many of my generation awestruck as they watch it in theatres for the first time. I was 8 when it originally released. A terrifically taut drama that unspools with ruthless elegance and frequently shocks us, thanks to both cinematic craft and emotional heft, Parinda is unquestionably one of the finest Hindi language films of the last thirty years. But you know that already.
No, this column is about Khamosh, the 1985 film that tells you a lot more about Vinod Chopra than any of his subsequent features. Unravelling with breathless grace, the plot is that of a classic whodunnit, a murder mystery on the sets of a film being shot in a small Kashmir town. Crammed with some of the finest actors in the history of Hindi film — Naseeruddin Shah, Pankaj Kapoor, Ajit Vachchani and Sushma Seth fill out the cast — Khamosh is a wickedly clever thriller with smashing characters, a film impossible to look away from. Chopra, aided by editing goddess Renu Saluja, demonstrates an economy of storytelling currently unfathomable in our overlong cinema, and pours out the simple but compelling plot through minimal rivulets of information even as the narrative chugs along quick as can be: keeping his audience guessing, second-guessing, wondering. Keeping them hooked as he masterfully reels it all in.
It is a stunning ensemble, with Razdan, Azmi and Veerendra Saxena standing out, and top honours won by dazzling Naseer, his intensity and dramatic fury taking not just antagonists but also the film’s very plot by the collar. Pankaj Kapoor, as the producer’s junkie son, is frighteningly fine if a trifle overplayed, while it is amusing to see Sudhir Mishra play Michael, the film’s cameraman. The joy is in the detailing, the on-set snark, the whimsy. Besides the meta-celebration of small-budget cinema and its actors, Khamosh also contains a number of MacGuffins and — in a truly inspired fanboy moment — a marvellous sequence which simultaneously pays tribute to both Psycho and The Godfather.
I have here lamented, in a previous column, our current cinema’s lack of attempts in the whodunnit genre. The heartwarming success of Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani — a film more enjoyable for texture than plot — might give the ever-compelling genre a fillip, and one can only hope for more mystery in our movies. And for a few films that learn from Chopra’s lethal masterstroke. As silent — or as silencing — as a guillotine.
First published Mumbai Mirror, April 4, 2012